Sociolinguistic approaches to the study of multilingualism and language shift

Maya Abtahian

Friday, February 1, 2019
12:30 p.m.–2 p.m.

Humanities Center Conference Room D


The rate of language endangerment worldwide is rapid, with linguists currently estimating that 50 – 90% of the world’s languages will be lost in the coming decades (Crystal 2000, Krauss 1992). Moreover, we know that the majority of the world’s population speaks a minority of the world’s languages, with 94% of the world’s languages being spoken by only 6% of the world’s people (Lewis, Simons and Fennig 2013). Correspondingly, the language endangerment literature to date has mostly focused on small language communities, where the language is already clearly moribund with few children speakers, and the investigations are more often locally-oriented, qualitative rather than quantitative, and ethnographic, with a primary focus on the description of languages that may shortly be lost. In this talk I discuss and compare different approaches to the study of language shift and endangerment from a sociolinguistic perspective, focusing on two communities that do not fall into this category. In one (Garifuna, Belize), the speaker population is small but the language still has many fluent speakers, and in the other (Indonesia) the language communities under investigation have speaker populations in the tens of millions. In both cases I argue that these languages are potentially endangered, and that these are the types of communities that we should be investigating in order to better understand the process of language shift.

Following recent trends in variationist sociolinguistics, I argue for an approach to the study of language shift that uses both quantitative and qualitative evidence to gain insight into the progression of language shift and the changes that accompany shift. On the one hand, a “big data” approach to the examination of language shift allows us to see that language shift at the national level can be a communal change that happens in less than a generation. From this perspective we gain insight into the demographic factors that correlate with shift toward the dominant language, including level of urbanization and education, as well as some social factors that are more surprising. At the root of community-level decisions about language choice, however, are the choices that individuals and families make over the course of their own lives, and most notably the central problem of intergenerational transmission (Fishman 1991). At a local level language shift proceeds generationally, and from this perspective we can gain insight into the characteristics of the pivot generation of speakers who push the shift forward. Using these approaches in tandem allows us to “examine what may result from combinations of…how individuals change or do not change during their lives [and] how communities change or do not change over time (Labov 1994:83).